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Bring back grammar schools to improve social mobility

Comment 16th July 2010

Grammar schools are not about elitism but about excellence – regardless of income. Their abolition was a disaster since they offered a highly academic education to pupils of any class , enabling pupils from the working and lower middle class to benefit from what was effectively a private school standard of education.

Since their abolition, social mobilty has ground to a halt and the 7 per cent of pupils educated at private schools have reasserted their dominance, taking half of top jobs and 40 per cent of seats in the House of Commons. The upwardly mobile grammar school kid from the council estate has gone – replaced by the public school toff who walks into top jobs because there is no competition from the state sector anymore.

Selection by ability – the grammar school – has been replaced by selection by income – either  a private school or the good comprehensive school, where middle class parents move in to the more expensive catchment areas of the leafy suburban comprehensive. The poor but bright child in the inner city gets sent to a sink comprehensive with low achieving kids and gets a bog standard education.   

The well-meaning liberals who decry the grammar schools have scored a spectacular own goal, kicking the ladder away from poor kids who may otherwise get a chance.

Look at the evidence – in Northern Ireland, which retained grammar schools until recently, the proportion of poor kids going on to university was higher than in England and the overall exam results better.   There is also research showing that clever children perform better in a class of around 20 of their peers instead of being among two or three in the top set of a comp (if they are in a set at all). It's like being in a rowing team – you're going to pull harder if your fellow rowers are at least as good as you or better, but if they're all slower than you, you can relax and not try too hard.   

 

 

     

Why does this matter?

Grammar schools have been tarred with the dread word elitism when in fact they offer a tremendous leg up to bright kids of whatever background. The children who don't go are not failures but neither would they benefit from a highly academic education. Just because my child isn't a failure if they don't get picked for the swim team – they're all different and this one-size-fits-all policy of the comprehensive means everyone gets a bog standard averagely academic education. We need to hothouse the brightest to enable them to fulfil their potential which is what happens in Germany, with their vocational, technical and academic high schools. And Germany is very successful (apart from the World Cup).

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